Phidias, Parthenon sculpture (pediments, metopes and frieze)

Discover stunning depictions of gods, heroes, and mythical beasts in the most influential sculptures in history.

Phidias(?), Parthenon sculptures, frieze: 438-432 B.C.E., pediment: c. 438-432 B.C.E. and metopes: c. 447-32 B.C.E. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] High atop the natural fortification that is the Acropolis in Athens is the sacred center of the city and some of the most celebrated buildings in all of Western history. The most famous is the Parthenon, dedicated to the virgin goddess, Athena.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:19] We’re talking about the 5th century B.C.E. in ancient Athens. This is a period we refer to as the Classical Period, the high point of Greek culture, and all of this comes right after an important Greek victory over the Persian Empire.

Dr. Zucker: [0:35] The Persians controlled an enormous area. Athens, and in fact all of Greece, which was then divided into a series of distinct city-states, was tiny in comparison. Miraculously, Athens was able to decisively defeat the Persians in 479 B.C.E.

Dr. Harris: [0:52] For many art historians the Classical Period of ancient Greece is a result of the incredible optimism and confidence — some would say overconfidence — of the Athenians in this period after the defeat of the Persians.

Dr. Zucker: [1:10] The Parthenon is often seen as the physical embodiment of that confidence, and while the building was constructed, the sculptures, which are every bit as important as the building itself, took a few more years to finish.

Dr. Harris: [1:18] We’re here in the British Museum, which houses — together with the Acropolis in Athens and a few sculptures in the Louvre — the vast majority of sculpture that was made for the Parthenon.

[1:29] These were overseen by the famous sculptor Phidias, and sometimes we refer to the style of the sculpture that we see here as Phidian. There are three primary locations where we find sculpture on the Parthenon — most obviously in the pediment, the triangular area at the very top of the temple, on both the east and west sides.

[1:48] Below that there are spaces called metopes in between triglyphs, and lastly in the frieze, that is, a band of continuous sculpture. The Parthenon is an interesting building because it combines both Doric and Ionic elements; the triglyphs and metopes are typical Doric elements while the frieze is considered a typical element of Ionic temples.

Dr. Zucker: [2:14] What we’re seeing here in London or the examples in Athens or in Paris are marbles that have lost all their color, and it’s important to remember that all these sculptures would have been very high up but were originally brightly colored, and this would have helped their visibility.

[0:00] That’s especially true for the frieze, which would have been atop the interior colonnade and so would have been seen in shadow.

Dr. Harris: [2:37] When the Athenians approached the Parthenon on top of the Acropolis, they approached the west side and walked around either the north or south sides to the east, where the entrance was.

Dr. Zucker: [2:54] That means that they would have seen the west pediment first and then the east pediment. This building is 2,500 years old, and it has suffered terribly and so has the sculpture. What we’re seeing is the result of the terrible abuse that this building has suffered over many centuries.

Dr. Harris: [3:05] In many ways, we’re lucky that anything survives for us to look at. Let’s start with the west pediment. The subject there is the competition between Poseidon and Athena to be the patron deity of the city of Athens.

Dr. Zucker: [3:19] But we know who wins because the city is named after Athena, and sadly, almost nothing survives from the west pediment.

Dr. Harris: [3:25] On the east pediment, the story of the birth of Athena.

Dr. Zucker: [3:30] And so right in the center of the pediment, at its tallest point, would have been the god Zeus giving birth to his daughter Athena, who was born full-grown from his head.

Dr. Harris: [3:40] Sadly, those central figures are lost. What we have on either side are the figures who were present, some of whom are reacting to the birth of Athena.

Dr. Zucker: [3:49] The pediment is traditionally read from left to right and it begins with the dawn, with the god Helios at his chariot representing the rising sun.

Dr. Harris: [3:58] Athena was born at sunrise, so this makes sense.

Dr. Zucker: [4:01] The baseline of the pediment functions as a horizon line. It’s a brilliant interpretation of the space and it allows us to imagine the figures rising up.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Then we have the gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus present for the birth of Athena.

Dr. Zucker: [4:14] One of the figures that is in the best condition is the nude figure that we think is likely the god Dionysos, the god of wine. If it is, he looks like he is appropriately lounging, perhaps with a cup of wine in his hand.

Dr. Harris: [4:29] That Greek love of the human body, particularly the male nude, and the articulation of the anatomy and the muscles of the body.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] While we see this figure at rest, the artist has been careful to represent his body in such a way that we know his strength.

Dr. Harris: [4:45] As we approach the middle of the pediment, where we would have seen the birth of Athena, it appears as though there’s some acknowledgment of the action that’s taking place in the center of the pediment. We have a standing figure who seems to be moving away, as though in surprise at the event that’s taking place.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] The figure to her left, even though the head has been lost, seems taken aback. She seems to be directly reacting. Her body seems to be jerking away. There is this sense of the momentary.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Dionysos and the other seated figure perhaps haven’t yet noticed the momentous event of the birth of Athena.

Dr. Zucker: [5:19] On the right side, we have the famous group, the three goddesses. Here we see the Greeks’ extraordinary ability to render not only the human body, but the forms of clothing that both obscure and reveal the body below it.

[5:32] For example, in the figure at the right, who is reclining, if you look at the way that the cloth wraps around her upper thigh, it is bunched up and so we know the thigh is far below that cloth. At the same time, the torsion of that cloth reveals the musculature underneath.

Dr. Harris: [5:48] But this isn’t the way that drapery really looks. This is the Phidian style that we associate with this Classical moment in ancient Greece, where the drapery acts almost like water flowing around the body.

Dr. Zucker: [6:02] Some of it is carved very deeply so that you get these black, rich shadows. There’s a nobility and a sense of luxury. These are beings without care. Then finally, at the extreme right corner, we have this brilliant form of a horse’s head.

Dr. Harris: [6:20] So on one side we have the rising of the day with Helios and his chariot. Here we have the end of the day with the goddess of the moon.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] Whereas the horses at dawn are full of energy and here, the horse looks exhausted. Its mouth, its nostrils seem almost to be resting on the edge of the building.

Dr. Harris: [6:33] Just below the pediment we find a band occupied by triglyphs and metopes, and on each of the four sides we find four mythic battles.

Dr. Zucker: [6:58] Each side of the building represents its own story, and here at the British Museum, the Lapiths against the centaurs. All four of these stories are really stand-ins for the way that the Greeks saw themselves in relationship to their enemy, the Persians, that is, that the Greeks stood for civilization, for order, and the Persians to the east represented a kind of disorder, a chaos, and barbarism.

Dr. Harris: [7:07] The story between the Lapiths and the centaurs begins at a wedding, where the centaurs have had too much to drink.

Dr. Zucker: [7:13] They weren’t used to drinking at all and they decided to make off with the Lapith women. What we’re seeing is the battle that resulted. In several of the metopes, the centaurs are victorious.

[7:23] In one extraordinary metope, we see a Lapith who has been killed by a centaur. The centaur rises up on his hind legs in victory, and the Lapith, whose body is so beautifully rendered, lies below. The body, even in its damaged state, shows the nobility of the Greeks and the Greeks’ love for the human body.

Dr. Harris: [7:43] In another metope we see the victorious Lapith, who’s got a centaur by the neck, pulling him back, while the centaur himself seems to be reaching to his back, perhaps to a wound inflicted by the Lapith.

[7:56] What I’m struck by in both of these metopes is the way that the figures almost break the bound of the metope, creating diagonal forms that have an incredible amount of energy.

Dr. Zucker: [8:07] Look at how the beauty of that torso is highlighted against the rhythmic folds of the drape behind. This is clearly fiction.

[8:19] In the middle of battle, you don’t have a perfectly splayed drape. But for the sculptor, the subject was clearly the beauty of the body. Look at the way the Lapith’s left leg pushes out at a diagonal as he tries to get a foothold to help support him as he pulls back the centaur’s body, almost like it was a bow. You get a sense of the enormous energy that’s being expended here.

Dr. Harris: [8:37] The center of this composition is empty and the figures frame that center, creating these arcs that pull against one another.

Dr. Zucker: [8:45] This particular Lapith is virtually a freestanding sculpture, but the Parthenon is also rightly known for a shallower relief sculpture. It would have been seen not on the outside of the temple but just inside the exterior columns.

Dr. Harris: [9:04] Let’s go have a look at the justly famous frieze from the Parthenon. We should say that no one is entirely certain what the frieze represents, but there is a general consensus that the frieze represents the Panathenaic Procession, that is, an important yearly procession that went up the Sacred Way to the Acropolis in honor of the goddess Athena.

Dr. Zucker: [9:31] The procession would make its way to one of the most sacred objects in all of Athens, an ancient olive-wood statue of the goddess Athena. This is extraordinarily rare. In almost every other ancient Greek temple context we see images from Greek mythology. We don’t see representations of Greeks of their own day.

Dr. Harris: [9:42] What we’re seeing is an idealized image of the Athenians, as though they projected themselves into the realm of the gods. We know that the Athenians were incredibly self-confident. They had defeated the Persians against all odds and so this surely must have something to do with the way they imagined themselves on the frieze.

Dr. Zucker: [10:02] Close to the beginning of the frieze, on the west front, you see preparations for the procession. Look at the two figures on horseback. Look how easily they ride on those horses that seem full of energy.

Dr. Harris: [10:14] The figure on the right pulls his horse back and leans back himself. The figure on the left turns back to look at him as his horse gallops forward. The naturalism in the movement here is an amazing artistic achievement.

Dr. Zucker: [10:29] This would have been brightly painted, and in fact the background would have been a brilliant blue.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] There were also metal attachments where appropriate.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] In fact, you can see three holes across the head of the horse on the right, which would have originally held a bridle.

Dr. Harris: [10:43] Look at the figures. Their bodies are ideal and athletic. They move easily.

Dr. Zucker: [10:49] There’s also great attention to the structures of the body itself. The people who carved this stone understood the musculature, understood the bone structure of the human body.

[10:59] There are 60 horses on both the north and the south side. There’s incredible variety and rhythm as these horses overlap and move across this ribbon of stone.

Dr. Harris: [11:08] Look at the overlapping legs of the horses. You can almost hear them galloping. But as animated as the horses are, the men themselves seem calm and noble.

Dr. Zucker: [11:19] We’re seeing almost all of their faces in perfect profile, which the Greeks believed was the most noble way of representing the face. Their mouths are closed as a representation of their sense of calm and control. These were attributes that the Greeks revered.

[0:00] Here, like on the metopes, we’re seeing an expression of the Greeks’ ability to control nature, to control these powerful animals.

Dr. Harris: [11:40] The next group that we see are charioteers. And actually, there was a chariot competition as part of the Panathenaic Procession.

Dr. Zucker: [11:47] In addition to the chariots, there are animals that are being brought for sacrifice. As we wrap around the building towards the east end, the energy that had existed with the horsemen calms and slows. We have a series of women who walk solemnly forward.

[12:02] We see large seated figures. These are the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus but interspersed with smaller representations of standing humans.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] We can differentiate the gods and goddesses from mortal humans by their size.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] It’s extraordinary that the Athenians are placing themselves in the immediate company of the gods.

Dr. Harris: [12:21] We see two figures, an older male figure and a younger, smaller figure, the gender of which has been debated. They seem to be folding a garment. We understand this as the peplos, which was regularly rewoven to clothe the sacred olive-wood sculpture of Athena.

Dr. Zucker: [12:48] The figure immediately to the right is Athena. She’s got her back to the peplos. Look how beautifully she’s rendered. Even here, in this badly damaged relief sculpture, you can see her easy stance on that chair.

Dr. Harris: [12:50] We again see that very stylized drapery that clings to her right calf and her thighs, outlines her breasts, and cascades and bunches up at her hips.

Dr. Zucker: [13:02] I love the way Hephaistos turns around and looks back over his right shoulder to address her.

Dr. Harris: [13:07] We should say that, although there’s general agreement that this is the Panathenaic Procession, there are many anomalies; for example, the fact that the Athenians are putting themselves together with the gods. This has led art historians to look for alternative readings.

Dr. Zucker: [13:23] These sculptures are 2,500 years old. It’s no wonder that there are persistent questions. No matter what is being represented here, there is consensus that these are some of the finest sculptures from classical antiquity.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] It’s no wonder that the government of Greece and the Acropolis Museum are demanding the return of these beautiful marbles.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] It’s such a complicated issue. When, in the early 19th century, Lord Elgin removed these marbles and transported them to London, he had permission from the Ottoman authorities.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] But that permission was limited and interpreted very liberally by Lord Elgin.

Dr. Zucker: [13:56] What do we do with museums like the British Museum, like the Louvre in Paris, which are fundamentally the result of imperialism?

Dr. Harris: [14:04] When the countries in Europe were imperial powers, and the objects were often taken forcefully or not entirely legally.

Dr. Zucker: [14:11] The question is, what do we do now?

[0:00] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”parthenon,”]

More Smarthistory images…

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Phidias, Parthenon sculpture (pediments, metopes and frieze)," in Smarthistory, November 25, 2015, accessed June 20, 2024,